Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers have shifted their strategic benefit priorities toward workforce and business resilience. This has included adding or expanding employee benefits for remote work and virtual health care. In addition, employers looking to the future have overwhelmingly indicated the importance of matters such as flexibility and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
“As organizations look toward the ‘new normal,’ they are finding it necessary to look strategically at their experience before and during the pandemic in order to understand their way forward,” wrote Cherri Bevilacqua, CEBS, CPHR, in her article “Evaluating Benefits Strategies in the Wake of COVID-19” in the July/August issue of Plans & Trusts. “Organizational leadership and management teams must fully understand their guiding principles to develop a robust benefits and total rewards philosophy that will support the business strategy. Through this framework, organizations will be better positioned for agile decision making during unexpected challenges such as the pandemic.”
Bevilacqua, who is associate vice president, health solutions with Aon, noted that, amid its many challenges, the pandemic also has created an opportunity for employers to reprioritize and embrace new ideas going forward.
Flexibility and DEI
The pandemic has forced organizations to take a fresh look at flexibility. This can mean the traditional flex benefit plan designs that focus on choices in core benefits and optional benefits, but it also can include policies that enhance remote work options and organizational DEI as part of an effort to attract and retain employees.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has touched every aspect of our lives, including how and where we work,” Bevilacqua wrote. “It has pushed employers to accelerate strategies on where the work gets done while being responsive to the differing needs of employees. Organizations have had to act quickly to provide flexibility to their workforce—balancing remote, on-site and combined working arrangements.”
For a benefits program to be inclusive and support diversity, Bevilacqua said that it must be accessible to all employees regardless of factors such as age, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status and family status.
To improve diversity through benefits, plan sponsors should have strategic discussions on plan goals and delivery components. Bevilacqua suggests that plan sponsors ask the following key questions.
- Do our benefit programs provide sufficient choice to meet the unique needs of employees?
- Is the language in benefit booklets and human resources policies inclusive and nonbinary?
- How are benefits communicated, and what channels are used?
- Are benefit enrollment processes user-friendly and supportive of informed decision making?
Virtual Health Care
COVID-19 revealed some flaws and gaps in benefit coverage, but it also has driven organizations to evaluate and improve their mental health offerings, Bevilacqua noted.
With the virus limiting in-person services during the pandemic, virtual health care has received significant new attention from benefit programs. In a recent survey, one-third of organizations said they currently offer virtual health care benefits, and another 27% were considering adding it. In addition, many of the organizations that implemented virtual health care during the pandemic intend to keep these benefits moving forward.
The Future of Work
A global human resources (HR) study performed last December indicates that most organizations are adjusting their strategies to respond to the pandemic and to prepare for the future of work. The study found that 42% of organizations have already taken steps to define, manage and implement future-of-work strategies, and another 29% are actively considering it.
This demonstrates the growing need for employers to evaluate their benefit programs in the wake of COVID-19, striving for a balance between budgetary constraints and enhancements that will support the attraction, retention and engagement of critical talent.
With that in mind, employers should review and update policies on remote work, total rewards and HR strategies to reduce operational risk and ensure equitable treatment of employees working in different arrangements.
“Employees and organizational leaders have had to adopt new habits and methods at work. In moving beyond the pandemic, there is a chance to reflect on the challenges endured and lessons learned,” Bevilacqua noted. “From this, there is great opportunity for employers to rethink strategic priorities and advance the employee relationship in an innovative, holistic and financially sustainable way.”
Robbie Hartman, CEBS
Editor, Publications, for the International Foundation
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